The Equine Practitioner’s Mid-Career Crunch 

Veterinarians in their second decade of practice face challenges ranging from personal losses and family conflicts to financial strains and burnout.
Mid-career equine practitioner
Midlife is a period when you naturally encounter more challenges. | Shelley Paulson

It seems as though veterinarians just can’t catch a break. After graduation from veterinary school, new practitioners lean in to learn more about practice in the “real world” or continue their education with internship and residency. Marriage and starting a family often follow, with needed adjustments to time management. This often is challenging, but what comes a decade later is harder yet. 

The challenges facing mid-career equine practitioners include (among others) aging parents, financial strains, child-rearing, career disenchantment, family and relationship conflict, and inevitable losses. Midlife is a period where you naturally encounter more challenges. Caring for children often coincides with emerging caregiving needs of aging parents. Many veterinarians in mid-career also face a period of boredom or lack of engagement in their work, as it begins to feel routine. Divorce is unfortunately still common, with about 50% of marriages in the U.S. ending. With increasing years, death of elder loved ones, such as parents and grandparents, becomes more frequent. Pets that were stalwart companions through veterinary school and early career moves reach old age and die. There are myriad ways to experience loss and grief during this time. 

The Grief and Stress of Loss

Mid-career, mid-life equine practitioner, experiencing grief with dog.
There are myriad ways to experience grief midlife, including the loss of aging loved ones and pets. | Getty Images

Sherri Gard, DVM, who recently started a solo practice in Virginia after the end of a long tenure at a local practice, spoke of the emotional toll “because I had poured so much of myself into that place, and leaving was mourning the loss of all that.” She took some time when her employment ended, which, as it turned out, was fortunate because her father had a health crisis. 

“When Dad died, I realized I was very lucky to be unemployed right then,” Gard says. “No way would I have been able to take that much time to go home and be with my family. The old job may have allowed the time, but they would have expected me to manage my clients from afar, and the office would have been blowing up my phone with prescription requests and other nonsense.” 

In another example of the pile-on of grief and stress in life, Gard describes how, with her husband deployed overseas at the time, she had to take his beloved dog to be euthanized for an acute condition one morning, then continue on with her usual work appointments all day. “I was professional and did what was expected,” she says. “Then I went home to the emptiest house ever. And then I had to give the news over the phone to my husband who was in a combat zone. And just telling you this now is making me sob.”

As your parents age, whether still in one household or apart, they are increasingly likely to develop health or other issues as the years pass. Perhaps they have cancer, battle substance abuse issues, made poor financial choices, or are developing Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe in retirement they moved a substantial distance from you, making needed evaluation and care more difficult to provide. When one member of a couple dies, the remaining spouse often struggles and requires more help. Fragile parents can fall and break bones. If they live alone, they might be suddenly unable to cope with the tasks of daily living. Others struggle to manage their finances or medical appointments. Monitoring elders’ well-being and arranging for assistance takes significant time and energy, while simultaneously stirring up emotions. Those whose parents remain independent and healthy well into old age are very fortunate, but the time of decline will eventually come. 

One equine veterinarian, who asked to remain anonymous, lost her father unexpectedly while in her fourth year of veterinary school. When asked about the stresses she has experienced in her second decade in the career, she spoke of the difficulty of emotionally supporting her widowed mother, who is living with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Her mother “calls every day, and every little thing that happens is the end of the world,” with all her anger and sadness falling on her daughter.  

With little support locally and no other close family members, her mother depends on the veterinarian to accompany her to every medical appointment, which requires frequent flights and time away from work. As an officer in the Army Reserve, the veterinarian is also acutely aware she will be deployed in the not distant future, and she worries what that will mean for her mother. Speaking of her veterinary career, she says, “It takes a lot emotionally to do this job. There would be more left of me in another career.”

When a parent can no longer live alone, some adult children arrange for them to move into their household until it becomes untenable. Added to the challenges of parenting your own children, parenting your parent or your spouse’s parent can feel overwhelming. An in-law apartment or accessory dwelling unit can sometimes provide the independence and privacy both parties crave. There is no question that having an elderly parent in the household puts stress on a marriage. The emotional work and financial investment can be a burden, especially to the non-offspring spouse. When that parent is terminally ill, the stakes are even higher, because the dying’s needs collide with the family’s anticipatory grief. 

Planning for your parents’ aging can help. By envisioning your parents 20 or 30 years older and educating yourself about the aging process–including declining cognitive and physical functioning–you can begin to think about future needs. The elderly also have an increased risk of depression and other mood disorders because, for many of them, loss—of their mobility, independence, friends, spouses—is constant. Have conversations with your parents as they age, questioning their health, finances, and whether they have a will or trust. Explore their end-of-life desires before they face this reality. Encourage them to write a living will and health care power of attorney. 

Also recognize the regressive aspects of aging, such as disinhibition, and the loss of existing support systems as friends die or decline. As a result, adult children must often provide more attention and input. Dementia can affect a person’s inhibitions, causing them to behave in ways that upend the usual social rules. Disinhibited behavior can be tactless, rude, or offensive and can place enormous strain on caregivers. Gradually, the parent you knew as capable and in charge might become more childlike. In some families, the death of a parent occurs suddenly without warning. This is almost always devastating to the entire family, and the remaining spouse, if left alone, can decompensate. 

Almost everyone has issues from their upbringing that have caused anger or trauma. Working to resolve these family-of-origin issues through therapy can help you resolve any ambivalence and anger that can affect your ability to bear the stresses of your parents’ decline. Prepare in several ways for the possible financial burdens and probable health declines.  

The Struggles of Childbearing and Parenting for Mid-Career Equine Practitioners

Veterinarians in their second decade of practice might struggle through rounds of infertility treatment and/or multiple miscarriages as they work to start a family at an older age. This can be emotionally, physically, and financially exhausting even when successful, and the grief of failure can be intense and debilitating. As an anonymous post on the Not One More Vet Facebook page shared, “I’m so tired and feeling defeated. I had a miscarriage at 9 wk (sic) last week and experienced the most awful pain emotionally and physically. I refused to take time off bc (sic) I couldn’t stand to feel like I’m a loser in all aspects of life. If I can’t have a happy ending maybe I can help someone else. But today was just too much. Too many emergencies, not enough time, and a colic who is not following the book making me feel even more defeated. I just want a break. I want to feel like everything will be okay.” 

Another wrote, “Need some support please … I just went through my 4th failed ivf cycle and am struggling emotionally with how to proceed.” Adding the heavy weight of infertility to the stress of life as a veterinarian can be so much to carry.

Whether or not infertility played a role, the arrival of an infant upends life as parents knew it. Those who are fortunate enough to have parents nearby often have some relief from the time stress and exhaustion babies can bring. Although infants are incredibly dependent, generally the complexity is low, but when health issues arise, most parents must focus entirely on their child. This can be very hard in all circumstances, but overwhelming if the parent is a practice owner or the family’s primary breadwinner. 

When children arrive, it truly does “take a village.” Mobilizing support systems in advance among family and friends allows you to have backup if you get sick or injured. By working out a fair distribution of household tasks, couples can keep their partnership strong even with the stresses of parenthood. Don’t leave this to chance—initiate a conversation about strategies to meet both parents’ ongoing needs for rest and recuperation. Because developmental transitions can be challenging, anticipating them and trying to give up the concept of control can help. Accepting what each day brings with a positive attitude will prevent you from accumulating unhealthy stress.

Fast-forward to that second decade of practice, and those cuddly infants have grown into distinct personalities, sometimes exhibiting differences in emotional sensitivity, patterns of learning, motor skills, or any number of other variables. Appointments for things like speech therapy, tutoring, physical therapy, or orthodontia begin to fill the calendar. Diagnoses like ADHD, autism, anxiety, or learning differences might change parents’ dreams for their children, accompanied by feelings of loss and grief. Other kids might develop solidly in the center of the bell curve, causing little worry but, like all kids, increasing the activities that require transportation during work hours. Homework assignments like building a model illustrating a moment in history or coming to class in a costume representing their favorite book require parental involvement. Parenting is intensive work and requires a significant daily investment of time and attention. 

A mid-career equine veterinarian, who asked to remain anonymous, has a child who developed severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). She spoke of “really struggling not to be sucked under with the flow of the big emotions and fears,” adding, “Each day I’m finding it harder and harder to cope. We are all exhausted and completely soul weary.” When your children struggle, you suffer mightily. It is hard to hold up under the worry of what the future brings. Recognizing you are doing your best as you cope with making hard decisions and trying hard to live only in the present day will be of some help during these hard times. 

For those with older children in high school, the complexities of puberty and adolescence—including dramatic swings of emotion, with anxiety, sadness, and anger—are not for the faint of heart. Being present for your offspring during this volatile time is both deeply necessary and terribly difficult. The pulling away, particularly from parents of the same gender, is painful and fraught for both parties. Worries about drug use, suicide, reckless behavior, school performance, and future success are common. Many kids play sports in high school or take part in music or drama performances. Attending these events is important in demonstrating that your child matters to you. Making college visits takes additional time, and when they leave your home, a hole is left in your heart as you miss them intensely. Being a parent is not a small thing.

Disengagement and Stress at Work for Mid-Career Equine Practitioners

Mid-career equine practitioner floating teeth.
One way to renew your engagement at work is to learn something new, so you use your brain differently. You could pursue additional training in a new aspect of medicine, such as advanced dentistry or lameness diagnostics. | Shelley Paulson

After a decade or so in the workplace, most cases might cease to be much of a challenge, and your passion for learning might feel like it has faded. You might be asking yourself, “Is this all there is?” One of the ways to renew your engagement is to learn something entirely new, so you use your brain differently. This could be pursuing additional training in a new aspect of veterinary medicine, such as advanced dentistry, lameness diagnostics, or integrative therapy, for example. Even more successful might be learning something in a different field, such as taking a course in leadership, knitting, sausage making, or communication. However, adding one more thing to your busy schedule might feel impossible or like another burden. To participate more fully in the other important parts of your life, you might need to reconfigure your work life.

Many busy practitioners, pressed from all sides by the demands on their time, might feel emotionally and physically exhausted and “checked out.” Burnout in veterinarians can manifest as fatigue, exhaustion, feeling completely depleted, having negative or inappropriate attitudes toward clients, irritability, loss of idealism, withdrawal from family and friends, reduced productivity or capability, low morale, and increasing inability to cope with small issues. If you notice these signs, you might be developing burnout. Begin prioritizing your self-care, reduce your exposure to stressors, seek out supportive connections with others, find ways to renew meaning in your work, and consider taking a leave of absence from practice.

The middle-life time can also be one of financial stress, as the need for retirement savings, college tuition, and assistance for parents might put a dent in your budget. Because your financial security in retirement is a gift to your own children, prioritizing your retirement savings is necessary. Fully funding your tax-advantaged retirement accounts should generally take priority over other savings. Because practice ownership can offer a much higher financial reward than employment as an associate, seeking out an ownership opportunity might be a good step.

Failed Marriages

Divorce is a life change that can be an emotional and situational tornado. It can alter all aspects of your and your children’s lives in multiple ways. Some children of divorce act out, become estranged, or develop depression or anxiety. Everything that came before might seem like a lie to kids, and teenagers are often very angry. All of you will be grieving, even if the marriage was painful for many years. Financially, divorce can be devastating, especially if marital assets are heavily distributed to attorneys through a contested dissolution. Marriages that break up in this second decade of practice can contribute mightily to a downturn in life satisfaction. As one veterinarian put it, “My divorce in part can be blamed on my career, because all the hours I was gone and my travel away from home created a space that someone else was able to move into.” Fortunately, most families emerge from this painful time with a new life for which they are grateful.

Prepare for the Future and Prioritize Self-Care

Taking care of yourself physically and mentally through all these stresses is essential. Prioritize good sleep habits, eat a nutritious diet, exercise regularly, spend time outside in nature, maintain and enhance your social connections, and adopt practices that promote calmness and well-being. This kind of self-care allows you to have the resources to do all the many things on your plate.

Mid-career veterinarians carry many responsibilities, all of which are meaningful to them. Sorting out priorities amid these concerns can be difficult and might seem to change from week to week, as one crisis follows another. Taking steps to prepare for the future and learning techniques for stress reduction and radical acceptance can help when the demands of your life appear as a tsunami. As inevitable losses occur, allow yourself space for grieving. Surround yourself with the people you love, and make them your true north.

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